Category Archives: Thoughts

Digital Identification and the Dangers to Youth

This nation’s attorney generals have been encouraging the development of digital identification – and pressuring social networking sites to implement such identification. There is a task force that is operating through the Berkman Institute that is addressing this issue. The leverage they are using is “fear of predators.”

So let’s first focus on research insight:

The overwhelming majority of young people are at no risk on online predation from strangers. The data on this (unfortunately 2000) indicated there were 500 arrests for online predation by strangers compared to 65,000 other arrests for sexual abuse of minors.

Children are not at risk. Predators target highly vulnerable teens who are providing online indicators (material and conversations) that they are vulnerable and interested in sex.

Young people face far greater risk from their peers. So separating minors from adults will not protect kids and teens. Further, minors generally become adults in their senior year of high school. Trying to convince teens that as soon as a peer becomes an adult he or she is now a potentially dangerous sexual predator and all contact should be ended would be an exercise in futility – to say the least.

On to digital identification:

In order to digitally identify someone, it is necessary for the Identity Provider to verify the identity and other variables, like age. This is pretty easy to do for adults, with credit cards or driver’s licenses. Who has this data for minors? Bingo! Here is where you come in. Schools have this information. In a recent Barkman task force meeting, the ability of schools to identify minors started to take on real steam.

So ok, we have concerns of student privacy under FERPA, as well as additional work. But there are other significant concerns.

One company, eGuardian has a solution to the additional work. “When parents enroll their children for a one-time $29 fee, the school their children attend will receive $11 for each verified enrollment. These funds may be used to upgrade technology or for any other area not covered by the school’s annual budget. Or, schools can choose to participate in our school fundraiser program and receive up to $13 per registration.” Eguardian is now partnered with WoogiWorld. just become aligned with ISafe and they are trying to use their connections with schools to promote school involvement. I have not been able to figure out yet how Isafe and Identity will seek to get schools involved in actually verifying identity. But they only announced their partnership today – October 17.

Both have initiatives that are attempting to sign students up in conjunction with the upcoming election. Do NOT do this!

Here is the danger:

The digital identification approach will allow market profilers to gain significantly greater insight into young people to allow them to send more effectively targeted advertising. These folks are using fear of the Internet as a marketing tool to gain the collaboration of schools – which will result in better targeting of advertisements to students – and the ability to track individually identified young people wherever they go on the affiliated sites.

How these companies work.

Take a look at the sites of two of the companies that are already trying to establish relationships with schools. Look carefully at the privacy policies. Note the language that focuses on personally identifiable information, name and address.

Eguardian: “We will never disclose the name or address of any child or parent in our database to anyone.” “It is’s policy to respect the privacy of Members. Therefore, will not disclose to any third party Member’s name or contact information.”

Here is the deal.

To engage in effective market profiling, it is not necessary to have a name and address. Helpful, but not necessary – and sooner or later, you can trick a user into providing this information – like through entering a contest – and add it to the already established file. What market profilers want and are willing to pay premium prices for is a unique persistent identifier (the id) and other demographics, most importantly age, gender, and geographic location.

At the recent Berkman taskforce meeting the CEO of eGuardian indicated that this is the information that is provided to the sites – id, age, gender, location. Further, in the document they provided to Berkman, they stated: “Alternately, for partners that do not charge access fees and/or rely on advertising, we also offer revenue sharing models derived for this targeted advertising revenue. Our ability to provide identity verified information allows for better targeted, and more appropriate, advertising to eGuardian protected children.” I found an interview of the founders online where they reiterated this funding model and discussed the increased value to advertisers of having this information. Go here and scan down to eguardian

The same information is present on the site if you look closely. Look at their blog. “The Profile API allows partner sites to easily register users, automatically provide an OpenID for each user, and maintain a rich profile of attributes about users.” Look also on their news page: “To further showcase how these these technologies can be applied, and i-SAFE will also work together on a youth poll conducted among participating students to assess their impressions of the current presidential election.’s identity verification technology ensures a scientific poll in that each user can only vote once, and their demographic information is confirmed. Results of the poll, which will provide authenticated demographic data such as gender, grade and zip code, will be released prior to Election Day.”

It is an outrage that under the guise of protecting children from online sexual predators, companies are promoting “solutions” that will allow “market profiling predators” to engage in more effective targeting of advertisements to children. The outrageousness of this situation is amplified with a consideration of the harm that is currently being inflicted upon youth by these same corporate advertisers – and the degree to which their advertising activities are encouraging youth risky or hurtful behavior that underlies risky sexual activities as well as other concerns related to the well-being of young people. The American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and others have focused on the harmful impacts of advertising on a range of youth risk behaviors.

In a recent report of the American Psychological Association Taskforce on Advertising and Children found ample evidence of harm in the form of parent-child conflicts, consumption of junk food, and consumption of tobacco and alcohol, expressed concerns regarding the advertising of violent media.

These concerns have also been expressed by the AAP. “Young people view more than 40 000 ads per year on television alone and increasingly are being exposed to advertising on the Internet, in magazines, and in schools. This exposure may contribute significantly to childhood and adolescent obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use.”

The American Psychological Association recently released a report on the Sexualization of Girls. The conclusion of the report was: “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development.”
As further outlined in the report: “Psychology offers several theories to explain how the sexualization of girls and women could influence girls’ well-being. Ample evidence testing these theories indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs. …”

Yet to be studied is the impact of advertising on bullying. However, it is known that advertisers frequently communicate the message to teens that in order to be “cool” they must have a certain product. This advertising likely has a significant influence on the behavior of teens in relation to their peers – judging others based on the degree to which they fit the advertiser’s version of what constitutes “cool.”

In light of the evidence of the significant harm inflicted on young people by advertisers, especially related to the sexualization of girls that clearly is contributing to online risky sexual behavior, the support of supposed technical “solutions” to the problem of online predation that would allowing greater market profiling to support better targeted advertising to young people would be unconscionable!

I am working with some of this nation’s top privacy experts to get ahead of this issue. IF we need to move to a process to digitally identify minors, then there MUST be legislation in place that prevents the use of this digital identification for market profiling and targeted advertising of minors! Until such time DO NOT sell out your students to the market profilers!


Delete Internet Fear-Mongering

Internet fear-mongering is undermining our ability to effectively address the risks to young people online. In their zeal to address these concerns, some individuals and organizations are exaggerating the problem. They present poorly documented statements and misleading claims. Here is one example:

“One in seven young people has been sexually solicited online.”

This statement is accurate, but it is really necessary to read the fine print of the study. One of seven young people has not been solicited online by a dangerous adult sexual predator, which is what most people think when they see this statement.

The source of this statement is a 2006 study conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC). CACRC asked about a range of online concerns, including what was essentially sexual harassment – unwanted sexual communications. Yes, some teens had been sexually harassed online. The vast majority of the reported sexual harassment came from those presenting themselves as other teens or young adults. Only 9% of the comments came from people presenting themselves as over 25. The vast majority of young people reported that they effectively dealt with the situation. Many did not tell an adult because, according to them, the incident was “not serious enough.”

A 2002 study by the American Association of University Women found that four of five students had been sexually harassed at high school. But we are not seeing calls to block teens from attending school.

Some teens and adults are engaging in or receiving online sexual harassment. Some are seeking sexual partners online. So we have to teach young people how to avoid getting into situations where this might occur and what to do if it does and what the dangers are related to online relationships leading to sex. More on this below.

The CACRC study did reveal a pattern of behavior that raises significant concerns. The study asked about “aggressive sexual solicitations” – solicitations where the “solicitor” sought to meet the youth in “real life.” Sixteen percent (16%) of the aggressive solicitations were made by females – 64% of whom were under the age of 18.

These are the youth who are at a much higher risk. They are intentionally seeking relationships that are dangerous and unhealthy. We need much more comprehensive solutions to address the concerns of these young people.

Here is another common statement:

“Online predators are tracking down young people based on the personal information they have posted online, abducting them and raping them.”

Another myth is that online predators are tracking young people down based on information they provide online, like the name of their school or sports team, and then abducting them. I will not say “never,” but I have been unable to find any actual reported incident where this has occurred. Nor have other professionals with whom I communicate, including researchers who focus on online sexual abuse and the safety directors of popular teen sites.

A 2002 study by CACRC reviewed actual online predation incidents resulting in arrest. The young people were between the ages of 13 and 15, 75% girls and 25% boys. There was no evidence of tracking or deception. These young people met with the predators knowing they were adult men and that they were going to engage in sex.

The young people who are most at risk online are those who are emotionally vulnerable and “looking for love” or those who are interested in meeting people to engage in sex. These are “at risk” youth. Our interventions must address the fact that these young people are placing themselves at risk.

Young people are being warned not to communicate with online strangers. They are not going to pay attention. Younger children are “waddling” around on Club Penguin safely talking with online strangers. Once a teen has exchanged friendly messages with someone not known in person, they generally consider this person to be a “friend,” not a stranger. Prevention specialists know that stranger danger warnings are ineffective.

We must teach young people how to negotiate the Internet safely, knowing they will be interacting with “strangers” and knowing that sometimes they may be harassed and some strangers may present danger. They must know what kinds of places are the least safe – like chat rooms. They must know how to use privacy protection features of social networking sites and instant messaging. They must know the special concerns related to posting images or information that could appear attractive to someone “cruising” the Internet looking for sexual partners. They must know how to deal with sexual harassment by filing a complaint and blocking or ignoring the person.

They must also recognize the signs of dangerous stranger – who generally will not try to initiate communications by sending “unwanted communications.” They must watch out for people who send overly-friendly messages, are excessively complementary, offer gifts or opportunities, want to establish a “special relationship,” ask for a sexy picture, or interfere with relationships with friends or family. These are the indicators of manipulation efforts.

Young “digital natives” are dismissing fear-based Internet safety guidance because they perceive that adults fear what they do not understand. As a result of this fear-mongering, they may be less inclined to report serious concerns to adults, even when they should. They have reason to fear that adults will overreact. Increasing their disinclination to report is a serious and damaging consequence of the irresponsible fear-mongering.

There are risks to young people online, just as in the real world. Younger children should be protected in safe online places and communications. Teens must gain the knowledge, skills, and values to independently make safe and responsible choices online. And parents must remain engaged.